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Clergy: EU Visas and Residence Permits

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 13 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of new (1) visa, and (2) residence, permit regimes for United Kingdom citizens working in the European Union on the numbers of Church of England clergy securing such permits.

My Lords, the withdrawal agreement protects UK nationals who were lawfully resident in the EU before the end of the transition period. Thirteen member states require them to apply for new resident status. British citizens travelling to the EU for work may need visas or permits from relevant member states. Member states are, of course, responsible for implementing their domestic immigration systems, and the UK does not hold information on the specific occupations of UK nationals abroad.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. This is of course a question that goes wider than the Church, but let us consider a diocese in Europe supporting UK citizens which is now unable to assign clergy for locum duty, for example, because of the lack of clarity regarding work permits. How do the Government intend to support UK citizens in what was an inevitable outcome of the withdrawal agreement? Can the Minister give any practical encouragement to the Bishop in Europe as he seeks to resolve these issues?

My Lords, I assure the right reverend Prelate that, as he may well be aware, we are working very closely with the Church of England—for example, on citizens’ rights—as it is one of the implementing partners of the UK nationals support fund. In addition, through our embassies, we are providing direct and relevant support as well as an extensive communications programme for all citizens across the European Union.

My Lords, in questioning the Minister for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, I hope that it is appropriate to say that my noble friend Lady Kinnock of Holyhead was an inspirational internationalist all her working life. Her lifetime of public service has helped changed lives throughout the world and we wish her well in her retirement. On the issue of visas for clergy, the Church of Scotland also has deep concerns about the position of locum ministers serving congregations throughout the European Union following Brexit. It also has concerns about split ministries, where the minister involved may be part-time in two different, perhaps neighbouring, countries, in two different churches. Will the Government guarantee to involve the Church of Scotland in any discussions about resolving these issues, including, of course, other Churches and faiths?

My Lords, I can of course assure the noble Lord that we will work with all organisations, including the Church of Scotland. If there are specific issues that he wishes to raise with me, I will be happy to answer them directly.

My Lords, are the problems experienced by the Churches not yet a further example of the increasingly tetchy relationship between the UK and the EU? I commend to my noble friend the very perceptive article in today’s Times by our noble friend Lord Hague, who points out how very important it is that we get on well and constructively? We have not left Europe. These are our friends and neighbours; it is incumbent upon them, and us, to ensure that we have a relationship which enables the normal decencies of life to be observed.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Cormack, and indeed with my noble friend Lord Hague. That is why we work very constructively, including on citizens’ rights, with the European Union. The Specialised Committee on Citizens’ Rights oversees the implementation and application of citizens’ rights; this is part of, and central to, the withdrawal agreement.

My Lords, the loss of free movement has harmed the lives and livelihoods of so many. Given that families and the ability to work have been severely impacted by the pandemic, are the Government considering alleviating one aspect of the childcare crisis—namely, the loss of au pairs—by providing a usable, dedicated visa route, so that this cultural exchange programme, which also assists families, can continue?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that, as part of the trade and co-operation agreement, we have agreed various protocols. There is not a specific resolution for each and every profession but, as I said in response to an earlier question, we are looking at this very constructively with our European Union friends to ensure that we can unlock any issues or particular challenges for workers, as the noble Baroness has suggested.

My Lords, many religious communities are not yet aware of how they will be affected by Brexit. They have relied on EU members to fill temporary posts; this will be hit when free movement ends on 31 December, along with routes for the previous temporary priest cover for summer holidays, for example. They can no longer sponsor a worker in the tier 5 category to fill the post of temporary minister of religion. Do the Government anticipate that the basis of an individual’s visits will fall within the visitors’ visa rules?

My Lords, I will write to my noble friend on the specific question he raises and, of course, place a copy in the library.

My Lords, the Question reminds us that we have inextricable ties of culture, trade and even religion with our former partners in the European Union. Does the Minister agree that, rather than looking selectively to the concerns of Anglicans, we should be looking to better working arrangements for all branches of Christianity, as well as other faiths and cultures, in reducing onerous visa requirements and enhancing better living and working arrangements with our former partners in Europe?

My Lords, I will first perhaps correct the noble Lord by saying that we do not regard the European Union as former partners; we continue to have a strong partnership with the European Union on a range of different issues. On the issues of religion and communities across Europe, yes, diversity is a strength of the continent and we should encourage those who wish to visit different parts of it. In this regard, the noble Lord will be aware of what has already been agreed: the ability to visit different countries on a rolling basis without the necessity of visa requirements. Anyone wishing to visit the European Union from the UK can do so for 90 days on a revolving 180-day basis.

My Lords, I would like to broaden the Question a little. The Church of England has a long and established history of engaging with other Churches in Europe and further afield, as well as with other faith groups. One campaign that it is involved in is VaccinAid, a campaign that aims to help to fund Covid vaccine rollout. What has the Government’s response been to ensure that that programme continues and that the Church of England’s practical support in Europe and further afield is aided?

My Lords, as I have already said in response to an earlier question, we are working very closely with the Church of England. We have set up a specific fund that helps to support UK citizens and are working with partner organisations, of which the Church of England is one, on the programme that the noble Lord has raised. I will write to him on the specifics of that.

My Lords, I want to press the Minister on reciprocity. There are expatriate communities in this country that also have religious services—the Swedish Church in London, in which I have sung, and other Lutherans; French and Polish congregations; Jewish congregations with visitors from the continent—so there are clear mutual interests. Are we negotiating on the basis of reciprocity or are we asking for greater freedom of access for UK citizens in the EU than for EU citizens in the UK?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important issue on reciprocal arrangements. There are a whole range of areas where we have seen reciprocal arrangements put in place. The whole purpose of the Specialised Committee on Citizens’ Rights, which is supported both by the UK and by the EU—officials are meeting regularly—is to unlock those very issues that can provide for the kind of access that he is suggesting.

My Lords, the questions that I was going to ask have been answered by the Minister in response to the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Wallace, so I am going to allow the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, to ask her question within the allocated time.

My Lords, French Minister Clément Beaune recently said in a parliamentary answer that it could be possible to find an opt-out or more flexibility on the 90-day rule for visa-free travel in Europe but that the British had little appetite for negotiating this point. What does the Minister make of that? What action are the Government taking to get a fair deal for UK citizens on visa-free travel in European countries?

My Lords, I believe that what we have negotiated is a fair deal. It allows anyone from the UK to travel to the European Union—the Schengen area specifically—for 90 days without the requirement of a visa. This period extends 90 days for a period of up to 180 days on a rolling basis. In essence, 50% of that 180 days can be on a visa-free basis. That is a substantive agreement reached with the European Union. On the question of rights, whether of UK citizens within the EU or otherwise, as Members will be aware, two different systems operate, where in certain instances UK citizens have to declare their intent to reregister, while other instances are provided through the natural law applying to existing UK citizens. On both processes, both streams of work are very efficient and effective, and where we find a challenge there is a joint committee to try to resolve those issues.

My Lords, thanks to the generosity of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, all supplementary questions have been asked and we can move to the third Oral Question.